09 October 2008

Autumn leaves and thoughts

The grape harvest is still going on. Yesterday Callie didn't want to walk out very far into the vineyard because there was a harvester going up and down the rows of vines at the top of the rise. The tractor pulling a trailer in which to haul away the grapes was out there too. It was too much activity, and too much machinery, for the dog.

We walked in the vineyards around the north side of the house instead of out to the west. It was wet and fairly warm, which is not good weather for the grapes at this stage. But I still saw grapes up and down some of the rows.

As you can see, the leaves are beautiful right now. Callie probably lost patience with me several times as I stopped to take close-up pictures. She has to entertain herself in those situations. And she does, sniffing around for evidence that a rabbit or a deer might have walked those rows before she did. And sometimes eating tasty treats (usually disgusting things) she finds on the ground.

All my recent rantings about factors you should consider before buying a house in the French countryside weren't meant to scare anybody away. But the fact is that about half the British people who move to France go back to Great Britain after a year or two, according to statistics I've seen. It's difficult to adapt to life in another country, and to adapt to life in a rural area if you are accustomed to living in an urbanized area. It's a totally different lifestyle, and it isn't all sweetness and light.

The many quick returns to Great Britain are at least partly because it's not as easy to learn French as people might think it will be. Actually, they probably haven't thought about it much before moving. One thing that happens when you don't really understand what people are saying all around you is that you get paranoid. You think people are trying to take advantage of you, or rip you off. The contractors won't answer your phone calls, so you feel ignored. Your self-esteem takes a beating when you are struggling in a foreign language. You feel like an idiot. I know all about it.

However that may be, with the current economic events, nobody much is buying houses anywhere these days, it seems. The French real estate market is suffering. New houses are standing empty, half completed. Money has dried up. Nobody's spending much. For example, consumption of gasoline and diesel fuel in France has dropped drastically over the past couple of months. The buses and trains are full of commuters, they say.

We saw the American couple who live in Scotland again Tuesday evening — we had them over for an apéritif. It was a nice evening for us. They had been taken to look at half a dozen or more houses that are for sale in the Saint-Aignan area on Monday and Tuesday. They had seen only one house they were really interested in, but it was probably too big for them (5 bedrooms and 5 bathrooms!), they said.

Speaking of bedrooms and bathrooms, the big news in the region right now is that Ikea is opening a store in Tours this month. The grand opening will be October 22, and it will be the first Ikea store in the région Centre.

Walt and I have been to Ikea a couple of times since we moved to France 5 years ago. There's a store south of Paris, just off the autoroute on the way to Fontainebleau. We stopped there on one of our trips and got a new light fixture for our kitchen ceiling.

Another time, we were coming back from the Mont St-Michel and we drove down to Nantes on our way to Saint-Aignan. It was a little out of the way, but we wanted to go to Ikea there. We got some things for our kitchen, including a new set of dishes. There's no doubt that the prices are good at Ikea, and my impression is that the quality of the housewares is good also.

Now we are looking for a couple of inexpensive armchairs for our living room, and we are looking forward to going over to Tours at the end of the month to see what Ikea has available. The store will be about 45 minutes from us by car, which is a lot better than the 3 hours it takes us to drive to Nantes or to the south suburbs of Paris.

There aren't a lot of opportunities for Ikea-style shopping here in Saint-Aignan. The big-box stores are mostly far from us, including the Home Depot-type stores.

I also didn't mean to give the impression, in writing about buying a house, that Walt and I have found the perfect place and the perfect house in France. Far from it, actually. But we were severely limited by out budget, even 5 years ago when the dollar was much stronger than it is now. That's what happens when you rashly quit your job and take early unemploym... retirement.

Buying an apartment is Paris was beyond our means, and we really did want to live in the country after living in Paris, Washington DC, and San Francisco for more than 20 years. We couldn't go farther south or out to the coast because real estate in those areas is a lot more expensive. You make your choices given your resources, and there are always trade-offs.

The house we bought is smaller than the house we would have liked to have. And now we don't feel like we can afford to enlarge it by having our huge attic finished off as a family room and master bedroom. Maybe one day... but not until the dollar improves a lot more against the euro, and not until we both start collecting our retirement pensions.

Having a fairly big yard to maintain has also been something new for us. I'm going to be 60 years old soon, and I can't pretend that age isn't a limiting factor. The kind of hard labor it takes to prune trees, rake leaves, and till up plots for a vegetable garden is not trivial. How long will we want to live in a place that requires so much upkeep year-round? Some days it seems like living in an apartment, with no grounds to maintain, would be a treat. But not yet.

Watching other people acquire houses and land here, and then watching them cope with the issues involved in upkeep and improvements — hard-to-reach contractors and faulty plumbing and antiquated electrical installations — means that we relive our own experiences year after year. We are pretty settled at this point, but in a house there is always an "opportunity" to fix up, improve, or modify something. It is never-ending. And then there's still the yard to clean up. And logs to saw.


  1. Ah, yes...the joys of having to communicate when you have the language skills of a three year old with learning difficulties and a cleft palate...

  2. Those leaves are extraordinary - you'd think they were fancy begonias.

    The grass is always greener, eh? That's the problem with so many Brits particularly - we've had a huge spate of TV programmes in the property boom years, all about people moving to other countries, and so many of the people in them really set themselves up to fail - it's all about prices and terraces with stunning views, and not a lot about doing the homework, thinking about finances and relationships and above all learning the language and the way of life. Some you just want to slap. Those who do make a go of it have to work very hard indeed.

  3. god, contractors don't answer your phone calls even when english is their mother tongue.

    and, these posts have been very interesting, as reality always is.

    reality also includes the amazing color -- almost cerise? -- on those grapes. thanks as always.

  4. i'd still rather have all the downsides and live in france & envy y'all for being able to do it

  5. I love the grape leaves in their fall glory!

    60 isn't that old nowadays and that yard work will keep you healthy. My Dad always had a large garden and worked it himself- he planted 125 tomatoes plants to sell and to give away. He farmed until he broke his leg planting lima beans at age 95. You are living the good life and we, your faithful readers enjoy hearing about the choices that you've made so far.

  6. The light there is absolutely gorgeous and you capture it so perfectly!

    I love what you've written about buying a house in France. I only wish there had been so many blogs (were there even blog 7 years ago?) about living in France when we were planning our move. It would have helped enormously and given us answers to so many questions!
    I'm sure you are helping a few who might consider making the leap without looking first!

  7. Ken - I like Conforama for furniture. I dont know what it's like to live with, because whatever that had that we wanted was out of stock, but it's a lot more appealing to my eyes than [spit]IKEA [/spit].

    I went to Conforama in Chambray a couple of weeks ago, and even Susan said she could live with some of their sofas.

    That is praise indeed

  8. Simon, aren't you just the slightest bit suspicious of any business or event with a name ending in -rama? I did take a look at the Conforama web site and saw one model of fauteuil that might suit us. We'll have to go to both stores while we're in Tours in November so that we can compare them.

  9. Perhaps at this point I should point out that it is not the IKEA product we object to, it is the IKEA shopping experience. We do in fact own 2 IKEA sofas already.

    'The word on the street' is that Maisons du Monde is especially good for sofas too, and they have a store at Chambray, but we haven't been yet.

  10. I think there is a Maisons du Monde in Blois so we might check that out too. We are looking for a couple of not-too-expensive armchairs.

    I've only been to Ikea twice since 1985 or so. There was one near Washington DC back then when we lived there, and we still have some pieces of furniture we bought there then. So I'm don't know much about the Ikea shopping experience, except that they send you on a march that takes you through every section of the store. We'll see what the Tours Ikea is like...


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